Report examines Harvey’s impact on Gulf Coast migrant communities

The Episcopal Health and Kaiser Family foundations recently released a second report on the Gulf Coast’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey using survey data.  This report, which draws on data from the same survey as the first, focuses on the experiences of immigrants recovering from Harvey in the 24 storm-affected counties.  Because immigrants have weaker social ties to non-migrants and less institutional access, their needs during recovery and suggestions for how it could be improved often go unheeded.  Understanding their experience is a crucial first step in making disaster recovery more equitable and responsive.

Fear as a Barrier

Recovery from disasters frequently reflects the political climate.  The present administration’s hostility towards immigrant populations in the form of raids and family separations has led to a heightened sense of fear for many disaster survivors born elsewhere.  Of those surveyed 48 percent said they were “somewhat or very worried” about inadvertently drawing attention to their or someone else’s legal status by applying for disaster relief assistance. Only 40 percent of immigrants applied for assistance through FEMA or the Small Business Administration compared with 64 percent of native-born residents.  

Fear might be a barrier to more than just applying for assistance.  Many organizations and activists in the Houston-area believe that migrants whose health was impacted by the storm may not be seeking medical assistance for fear of drawing attention to their legal status or the status of someone close to them.  As a result of this fear, patients go untreated, conditions worsen or become chronic, and crucial data on Harvey’s impact on public health fails to reach health departments.   Cesar Espinoza, the executive director of Houston-based immigrant rights group FIEL said, “In many instances when we talk to undocumented people after natural disasters they are more worried about how this will impact their status rather than what they have just lived though. After Harvey we saw a lot of people who were hesitant to seek help out of fear that their status may be ‘probed’ or that by them giving up too much information it could be used against them.  So what this creates is unrealistically low number of people seeking help and a community at a higher disadvantage.

Loss of Income

Compared to native-born residents migrants were also determined to more likely have lost income in either in reduced work hours or job loss (64 percent versus 39 percent). This loss of income compounds an already tenuous financial situation for migrants in the Gulf Coast as more than half report incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.  Only 12 percent of migrants said they would be able to live comfortably for at least 6 months in the event of job loss. Disaster-related job loss isn’t just felt by the earner as migrants were more likely to have children than native-born workers(59 percent versus 32 percent).

The survey found that erhaps because of their increased loss of income ,  immigrants were more likely to have fallen behind in their rent or mortgage or borrowed money from a payday lender to make ends meet.  These post-disaster hardships could have long-term impact on survivor’s financial health by decreasing their credit-worthiness and subjecting them to sky-high interest rates.   

Similar Experiences, Same Priorities

The deep dive into migrant survey responses revealed that immigrants struggled with the same problems as native-born residents, although with less support in the form of disaster assistance and access to care.  Migrants and native-born residents also agree on the priorities indicated by resident Texans including rebuilding destroyed homes, getting financial help to those who need it, and making more permanent affordable housing available as well as improving the supply of temporary housing.

Thanks to the Kaiser-Episcopal report we now have quantitative data to match the qualitative, anecdotes we’re hearing from migrant communities post-disaster.  Armed with this information it’s up to advocates and public officials to make the recovery from Harvey a safe and equitable one for vulnerable migrant-residents whose contributions are everywhere, but whose voices are rarely considered.